Miami Beach

Miami Beach tennis center is still named after Abel Holtz

 

cveiga@MiamiHerald.com

There’s the street in downtown Miami. The children’s hospital at Jackson Memorial. And now, the tennis center in Miami Beach.

All bear the name of Abel Holtz: former banker, generous philanthropist and convicted felon.

Many remember the Miami Beach tennis stadium that was named after him. That was before Holtz pleaded guilty in 1994 to lying to a grand jury about making secret payments to a famously corrupt Miami Beach mayor.

The stadium is long gone, but a separate tennis center still stands. After years of work and millions of public dollars poured into renovations, that center is slated to reopen soon.

Signs on site declare: Flamingo Park Holtz Tennis Center.

“It’s scandalous,” said Gayle Durham, who sits on the Beach’s Tennis Advisory Committee.

She’s not just talking about the name. Tennis enthusiasts also wonder about the process that landed Holtz’s name there.

As it turns out, it was a process involving contract obligations that the city might no longer be bound by — a contract that Holtz himself, now 78, told The Miami Herald he wouldn’t try to enforce.

Before he went to prison, Abel Holtz was an influential banker. He escaped Castro’s Cuba and went on to build Capital Bank, which made him a multimillionaire.

Holtz spread his wealth, donating generously to organization such as Miami’s Children’s Hospital. He also built a tennis stadium that he donated to Miami Beach.

Built on city land, it cost $550,000, according to news reports at the time, and was called Abel Holtz Stadium. He gave the city favorable terms on a loan that was used to renovate the separate, nearby tennis center. In return, the center was renamed the Flamingo Park-Capital Bank Tennis Center.

To seal the deal, the city in 1983 entered into a contract with Capital Bank. According to the contract, the stadium would keep the name “in perpetuity,” and the center name would not be “removed, altered or changed unless approved by Capital” and unless the city agreed.

At the same time he was building his stadium, Holtz was buying political influence, said former Miami Beach Mayor Alex Daoud.

Daoud was a young lawyer and a Miami Beach city commissioner when he first met Holtz at the banker’s waterfront Venetian Islands mansion. It was there that Holtz first offered him a bribe, Daoud said in a telephone interview with The Miami Herald. Daoud said he was paid between $1,000 and $1,500 a month in “legal fees” for services he never provided.

“It was for influence,” Daoud said. “He bribed me.”

Daoud, who went on to serve three terms as mayor, was pocketing money from plenty of other people. His political career ended in 1991, when he was slapped with a 41-count federal indictment charging him with racketeering, extortion, money-laundering and filing false tax returns. The disgraced mayor testified that he had accepted the payments from Holtz.

Daoud was sentenced to five years in prison, but served only about 18 months.

Pleading guilty

Holtz, meanwhile, pleaded guilty in October 1994 to lying to a grand jury about the payments. His conviction meant he could no longer run his bank, so his son, Daniel Holtz, was put in charge.

The city, meanwhile, pondered what to do with its tennis stadium, which now bore the name of a criminal tied to one of the most infamous chapters in Miami Beach history. Contractually, the city needed Capital Bank’s permission before it could change the name.

Then-Mayor Seymour Gelber shot off a letter to Daniel Holtz in December 1994, asking the bank to remove Abel Holtz’s name from the stadium.

Daniel Holtz responded in March 1995 that the bank’s directors voted to drop Abel’s name and call the facility simply “Holtz Stadium.”

Holtz goes on to say that signs at the tennis center should read: “Capital Bank Tennis Center,” taking out “Flamingo Park” from the name.

By 2000, the tennis stadium was no longer in use, and the city wanted to tear it down. So Beach officials met with Abel Holtz and got his permission to do so. At that time, he and the city also agreed on a new name for the center: The Flamingo Park Holtz Tennis Center.

The meeting and the naming agreement are outlined in a 2000 letter written by Raul Aguila, who is now a chief deputy city attorney.

“That never went through any public hearing or any notification or any commission vote,” said Rebecca Boyce, who runs a tennis program out of Flamingo Park.” It was done in a back-room deal.”

In addition to the perceived secrecy of the deal, tennis enthusiasts also wonder: Why did the city negotiate with Holtz at the time?

Remember: The contract regarding naming rights was made between the city of Miami Beach and Capital Bank. But by 2000, Holtz’s bank no longer existed.

Capital loss

After his felony conviction forced him to transfer control of Capital Bank to his family, a judge ruled that the Holtz family did not have the “character, reputation, experience and financial responsibility to control and operate” the bank. The Holtzes were forced to sell their empire to Union Planters (which eventually merged with Regions Bank).

“The contract gave Capital Bank, not Abel Holtz, the right to change the name on the tennis facility. Once Abel Holtz lost control of Capital Bank, he no longer had any authority under the contract,” University of Miami law professor Andrew B. Dawson wrote in an email to the Herald. He read the contract for the newspaper.

But Aguila, the city attorney, laid out several reasons why Holtz might still have authority over naming rights at the center. The attorney emphasized that he wasn’t advocating for the name, but simply trying to protect the city from any legal action Holtz might take against the city.

Among the reasons:

• Abel Holtz “had, in effect, been Capital Bank,” he wrote in an email. Therefore, he had “standing,” a legal term that basically means Holtz has a legal stake in the issue.

• Holtz is a “beneficiary” of the 1983 contract. In other words, he is someone who was not a party to the contract but who still receives a benefit from that contract — like the beneficiary of a life insurance policy.

Arguing that Holtz is a beneficiary to the contract “may be a stretch,” wrote Dawson, the UM professor.

WHAT HOLTZ SAYS

Abel Holtz, who now lives in Bal Harbour, says he doesn’t understand why someone would be against his name being on the tennis center.

“It’s either someone we turned down for a loan, or a maybe we never got along and socialized with, or something like that,” he theorized.

Holtz said he staged competitions at the old stadium, which brought prestige to the city. He also said he gave the city money over the years to pay for the center’s upkeep.

He said he would “feel bad” if his name came off of the center, but he wouldn’t take any action against the city if that happened.

“None whatsoever. I’m willing to waive it, if the city asks for it. I’m not going to do anything to hurt the city,” he said.

The City Commission has referred the name issue to an advisory committee.

This story has been corrected to reflect that the tennis center name was changed in 1995 to simply “Capital Bank Tennis Center.”

Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.

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